Protesters battle with police in Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India Wed Sep 15, 2010 6:06am IST

A policeman stands guard near a closed shop during a curfew in Srinagar September 14, 2010. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

A policeman stands guard near a closed shop during a curfew in Srinagar September 14, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

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SRINAGAR, India (Reuters) - Hundreds of stone-throwing protesters battled police in Indian Kashmir on Tuesday, a day after one of the worst single episodes of violence in two decades of separatist protests.

Eighteen people were killed, nearly all of them in police firing, on Monday during anti-India and Koran demonstrations in the disputed region, increasing the pressure on the government to tackle the protests that have simmered through the summer.

In the northern town of Baramulla and in Zainakote near summer capital Srinagar, clashes on Tuesday left five protesters and one policemen injured. But otherwise most of the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley was quiet.

Heavily-armed police patrolled the streets of Srinagar, and loudspeakers mounted on police vehicles asked residents to stay indoors in a bid to head off more protests.

All flights to the city were cancelled due to security fears, the first time in 11 years.

The latest deaths are a huge challenge for the federal government, which has been criticised for failing to treat the protests seriously, underscoring a policy limbo in New Delhi that may spill over into tension with Pakistan, which claims Kashmir.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi condemned "blatant violence by Indian security forces against Kashmiri people that have resulted in the loss of scores of innocent lives since June this year," according to a government statement.

But Pakistan, long accused of stoking the separatist fire, may not be interested in stirring up too much trouble with nuclear neighbour India as it faces its own massive problems of floods and militant attacks.

"Pakistan has shown maximum restraint on this issue and I think this is a very mature strategy that they have not intervened at the highest level," said Ershad Mahmud, a Pakistani expert on Kashmir affairs.

On Monday, police killed at least 17 protesters and one policemen died as demonstrators torched a Christian missionary school and government and police buildings to denounce reports that copies of the Koran had been damaged in the United States.

Kashmir has witnessed massive demonstrations against Indian rule in the last three months and police have killed at least 87 protesters. Demonstrations on other issues -- such as the Koran -- can often balloon into wider anti-government sentiment.

NEW GENERATION OF PROTESTERS

A new generation of young Kashmiris, who have grown up with house raids, police killings and army checkpoints, feel increasingly angry at Indian rule and champion street protests rather than the violent militancy that characterised the 1990s.

The Indian government has faced criticism for coming up with few policies to diffuse the crisis, a sign of what is perceived as a lack of leadership and vision from the 77-year-old Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

"I am sure anger against reported Koran desecration is temporary and may die down soon but the sharp rise in civilian killings will fuel more anger against Indian government," said Noor Ahmad Baba, dean of social sciences at Kashmir University.

"The government seems more dependent on (using) force than finding a political solution to the crisis and this attitude may further deteriorate Kashmir."

(Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Added reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Paul de Bendern and Sanjeev Miglani)

(For more news visit Reuters India)

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